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Yoga Breathing Exercises, Pranayama

Updated on March 22, 2013
Practicing the Kapalabhati pranayama or skull brightener yoga breathing exercise.
Practicing the Kapalabhati pranayama or skull brightener yoga breathing exercise. | Source

As long as there is breath, there is life. We can do without all conscious functions of the mind and the senses for a comparatively long time, but not without breath. Breath therefore is the symbol of all the forces of life and stands first among the bodily functions of prana. – Lama Govinda

The word Pranayama is a Sanskrit word which is a combination of two words, 'prana' + 'ayama':

  • 'Prana' means = 'to breathe forth' -- It comes from the prefix - 'Pra' = 'to bring forth' and the verb 'an' = 'to breathe' or simply 'to live'.
  • 'Ayama' literally means 'to stretch, extend; restrain, stop; expand, lengthen, either in space or in time'. It is usually translated as 'control'.

Traditionally in the philosophy of Yoga there are Eight limbs of Yoga according to Patanjali and the fourth one is pranayama. The first five namely, yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, and pratyahara, are regarded as the outer limbs of yoga and the last three, namely, dharana, dhyana and samadhi are the inner limbs.

Pranayama is the practice of using the breath to produce different effects in the body and mind according to the different durations of the inhalation and exhalation of our breath and also holding in the breath. In common usage 'Pranayama' is said to be breathing exercises. However, there is more to Pranayama than mere physical and mental benefits or effects. Pranayama is a means for:

  • Self inquiry – by looking at how we breathe we begin to understand something about who we are.
  • Self-transformation – as the yogis say, breath and consciousness are really two sides of the same coin, when we change the breath in the practice of pranayama, we inevitably change who we are.
  • Self-realization – when our small breath becomes one with and reveals itself as identical to, the Great Breath.

The Physical Benefits of Pranayama:

There are many beneficial effects on the physical body as a result of the regular practice of pranayama:

  • It stokes the gastric fire, which improves digestion and speeds elimination of wastes from the body.
  • It appeases thirst and hunger so you will not be distracted by these cravings during practice.
  • It opens the sinuses to allow more air into the body.
  • It purifies both the gross and subtle energy systems of the body.
  • It cures many diseases and conditions, including nervous disorders, indigestion, cough and fever.
  • The most important point is that what you get out of the practice depends on how much you put into it.

The Egyptian Pose is the best for those who cannot sit on the floor to meditate or practice pranayama
The Egyptian Pose is the best for those who cannot sit on the floor to meditate or practice pranayama | Source

How to Practice Yoga breathing exercises:

Traditional Yoga texts tell us about all the aspects of practicing pranayama such as frequency of practice, preferred time of day and place, the length of time of each practice, and also which direction to face while practicing. It is also important to have an idea of how to best structure your ongoing practice.

  • How often should you practice: Daily practice is ideal. Make a commitment to be as regular as possible and try not to miss more than two days out of every week.
  • When is the best time: Traditionally the best time to practice meditation and pranayama is just before or during sunrise. It is because the atmosphere is most highly charged with prana. Whatever time you choose it is important to practice at the same time every day.
  • What is the best place: A dedicated room or space in a room in your home is best for your practice with inspiring books and objects in it.
  • How long should you practice: Beginners should spend a minimum of 15-20 minutes for the first few months for each session. The practice should be done in the designated place and not by lying in bed and doing the breathing exercises.
  • Which direction to face: Facing East or North is ideal. East is the quarter of the rising sun and North is the quarter of the polestar and the pinnacle of heaven. This will help in observing the purity of direction
  • Dedication to the Divine: Once facing the chosen direction, either East or North, a few words of homage to the great teachers or words of your own devising can be said in a low voice. Just being silent for a few moments and dedicating the fruits of your practice to the divine is also a good idea.
  • What to wear: Loose fitting clothing appropriate to the season is best. Empty Stomach and after a shower is best. However, if you are too hungry have a light snack or drink. It is good to practice after a shower so that your body does not reabsorb the toxins during the practice when you go inwards.
  • Which Posture is best: An easy and comfortable posture is best, either on the floor or in a chair in the Egyptian posture.

There are many different yoga breathing exercises or pranayama such as:

  • Kapalabhati – skull brightener or skull shining breath (preparation for pranayama)
  • Vritti Pranayama – Ratio Breathing. There are two types:
  1. Sama-vritti – Equal Ratio breathing
  2. Vishama-vritti – Unequal Ratio breathing

The practice of Pranayama cannot be taken lightly. It is best to find a teacher to help you begin the practice. There is a lot of preparation to be done before beginning practice. It is a good idea to get the body in a condition of good health and fitness through yoga asanas (poses) and changing the lifestyle to a calmer and peaceful pace. One has to also overcome physical and mental obstacles to the practice.

If you are unable to find a teacher immediately, there are many good books available. One of which is The Yoga of Breath – A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama by Richard Rosen from which I have taken references for this article.

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